Friday, August 12, 2016

More rubble = more trouble

Interesting study (Dell and Querubin, 2016) released this summer on some effects of "kinetic warfare" (i.e. bombing, shelling, and strafing) in the RVN in 1969.
The study's conclusion should surprise none of us who have watched the "more rubble, less trouble" approach to the Middle Eastern problems over the last two decades or more:
"While U.S.intervention aimed to build a strong state that would provide a bulwark against communism after U.S. withdrawal, bombing instead weakened local government and non-communist civic society. Moving from no to sample mean bombing reduced the probability that the village committee positions were filled by 21 percentage points and reduced the probability that the local government collected taxes by 25 percentage points. The village committee was responsible for providing public goods. Bombing also decreased access to primary school by 16 percentage points and reduced participation in civic organizations by 13 percentage points."
In other words; bombing the living shit out of people pisses them off and makes them LESS likely to go along with whatever cunning plans you have for winning their hearts and minds, or grabbing their balls, for that matter.

How well this study conflates with the current enthusiasm for various Western polities' for bombing the shit out of the Middle East is difficult to assess. But it certainly does seem to suggest that John Paul Vann may or may not have been right about the best weapon for suppressing rebellions but he seems to have been absolutely correct about the WORST.


  1. Chief,
    bombing costs far exceed the $ amount of damage done.

  2. Which violence supports one's aims depends greatly on one's aims, and on where that violence happens.

    North Vietnam de facto invaded South Vietnam, thus the treatment of the conflict as a military vs. military conflict instead of as policing/political counter-guerilla conflict. Once this invasion was understood beyond doubt many forms of violence would have been supportive of the aim of helping the "anti-communist" Southern Vietnamese state survive. This includes air strikes with exclusion of SV settlements and exclusion of cluster munitions over SV agricultural areas.

    The problem in SV was that air/ground firepower and even artillery firepower weren't scarce enough, and thus too "liberally" applied, particularly as a substitute for American blood.
    I suppose there wouldn't have been so much backlash if troops had effectively been prohibited from destroying buildings not known to be occupied by enemies and but a hundred Skyhawk jets worth of CAS had been available.

  3. BTW, I tried to cover the topic of excessive employment of resources a couple times, but never in a fully satisfactory way. It's too counterintuitive to not use all available resources in pursuit of an objective.
    One try was this one

    I suppose there's a link between the inflation of the Kosovo Air War target list (and associated demand for air war resources) from obvious targets to almost anything painted in green or moving and the firepower excesses of Vietnam.

  4. Interesting link Chief. I tried to wade through it all, including their statistical analysis.

    I believe their message. I saw firsthand the effectiveness of the Combined Action Platoons which merged a squad of Marine grunts with village militia to keep the VC out. And I saw it fall apart later when the Army took over command in I Corps and the CAPs deteriorated without replacements as the new order of the day was Search and Destroy. The General who started the CAP program was Lew Walt. A smart guy but he was called BDL for Big Dumb Lew behind his back by the firepower and attrition advocates. His naysayers were the ones who snarkily said “grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”. Has that ever been true? I doubt it. Westmoreland fought Walt all the way on the CAPs and refused to authorize the billets. Every Marine assigned to a CAP had to come out of the TOE of an in-country unit leaving that unit shorthanded. LtCol William Corson was its first director. Corson later just barely avoided a court martial for publishing his book
    'The Betrayal'. It is a good read if you can find it.
    General Walt wrote a book on it also:
    'Strange War, Strange Strategy'. But being a flag officer he was a lot more diplomatic towards Westie than Corson was.

    On the other hand here are some thoughts on Dell and Querubin's analysis. I believe firmly in what they are trying to prove, but am not sure they proved it to everyone’s satisfaction for the following reasons: 1] Much of their basic input comes from the Hamlet Evaluation System (HES), which they themselves admit contains some incomplete and/or misleading data. 2] ”. . . Air Force data providing the coordinates and amounts of ordinance dropped . . . was migrated during our sample period, leading to fragmentary information.” 3] Regression analysis has some disadvantages in the soft science of human behavior.

  5. Mike: I tend to agree with you that the study data doesn't provide a basis for a "QED" sort of conclusion re: the quantitative effects of high explosives. I think their qualitative effects of the CAP- versus non-CAP villages nearby are useful, tho; they tend to support your (and others; I've read several records of the CAP program and they track w yours...) assessment of the USMC approach as remarkably successful.

    I also agree w Sven on the political setting for this study, especially as how it argues against a very specific application to "little wars" and rebellion suppression outside the RVN. Particularly in the current Middle East; there's no conflict there now I can see as an analog for the RVN 1969. Plenty of VC local-force types but no equivalent of the NVA and not even many rebels similar to VC Main Force units (IS conventional troop units, maybe as close as it gets...)

    Still..the general idea of "more rubble = more trouble" is always worth reminding policymakers...

  6. FDChief -

    I wondered about the specific difference in your last sentence of the post here: "But it certainly does seem to suggest that John Paul Vann may or may not have been right about the best weapon for suppressing rebellions but he seems to have been absolutely correct about the WORST."
    and the last sentence in the post at your Graphic Firing Table blog: "But it certainly does seem to suggest that John Paul Vann was quite right about the best weapon for suppression rebellions."

    A change of heart perhaps? Are you back on your previous schtik regarding the futility of COIN?

  7. Nope. IMO there's only one proven-successful method for suppressing rebellions, and it begins with the word "solitudenem"...

    This was just careless editing. After I put up the post at GFT I copied-and-pasted to here and, prior to publishing, thought about that statement and realized that while I didn't (and don't) buy Vann's faith in the knife I agreed that that aircraft was the worst.

    And, ironically, NOT because it is good at making wastelands, but the opposite. As we've seen from Vietnam to Kosovo, artillery and aerial bombs often miss the Gs and kill women and kids you want to terrify with your mercilessness, who will raise (or grow to be) the cowed subjects you're trying to produce...

  8. FDChief -

    That ’solitudinem’ quote you mention has been called an invention by more than one historian. Tacitus reportedly claimed it was from a speech by a Caledonian or Pictish chieftain. But IIRC the Romans were the ones who had to build not one but two walls to keep the Picts from turning Roman Britain into a desert.

    I am by no means a student of the Roman conquests. But it seems to me the only place they turned into a desert was Carthage. Maybe you have other examples?? And the destruction of Carthage was pure revenge. Even then they spared Carthaginian Spain. I believe the Romans were a lot more into COIN than we were. They executed the captured leaders, yes. But they also played one tribe against another, probably where the modern Brits and Spaniards got the idea for winning their Empires. And they took young hostages back to Rome and gave them citizenship and Roman culture (to their sorrow in the case of Arminius). They gave land in the occupied territories to retired legionnaires. They intermarried. It took several decades or even a century.

    Times of changed and we were never going to make that kind of commitment. No matter how good the Combined Action Program was in I Corps we were eventually going to go home. Ho and Giap knew it and could outwait us.

    1. What I always enjoy about Roman historians is how their "barbarian" characters always sound like...Roman historians. I suspect the "make a wasteland" is no exception, and that the actual Picts said something more along the lines of "What?! Those fuckin' Romans, again? Gaul wasn't enough for 'em? The fuck?"

      That said, Roman rebellion suppression as opposed to conquest was pretty brutal. Judea got hammered down hard in the 1st Century, as did the Brita after Boudicca and the German provinces several times. And I'd argue that those folks got off light compared to the servile I think Tacitus was riffing more on the fate awaiting rebels rather than the typical future provincial subchief. His point being just that, given certain circumstances his "civilized" Romans countrymen could be your worst nightmare...